Chester has been without the Gateway Theatre for almost three years and the new performing arts centre is not even on the horizon. Have Chester audiences resorted to reality TV or are they finding somewhere to get their cultural fix? JO HENWOOD finds out
BICKERTON Village Hall, Helsby Hillside School and Kelsall Community Centre are not normally synonymous with The Royal Exchange in Manchester or Theatr Clwyd’s Emlyn Williams Theatre.
Yet these are just three of many similar venues around the county that punch well above their weight in terms of live performance.
Claire Smith, rural arts officer for Cheshire Rural Touring Arts, thinks that if the quality of production is good, it doesn’t matter where it is performed.
“High quality works,” says Claire, who has a wealth of experience in promoting theatre, dance, circus, cabaret and comedy in unusual places.
“We have a smorgasbord of venues from Great Budworth Village Hall which seats about 55 to Upton Village Hall which can accommodate more than 200.”
The rural touring autumn season, which kicked off in September, offers 13 different productions in almost 30 venues across the whole of Cheshire.
They include one-woman shows, a swing band, a choir from Zimbabwe, Circus Berzercus, comedy and drama from well known names like the Oxfordshire Theatre Company.
“People have come to expect the same quality of production at Mollington Village Hall as you would expect in The Royal Exchange,” says Claire, who has a close relationship with the volunteer promoters at all venues.
“The promoters are a mix of parish councillors, members of village hall committees and interested people.
“They organise the events for altruistic reasons. They want to bring high quality shows with the wow factor to their communities.
“We work closely with all the promoters and offer training days in developing audiences and marketing.”
The strategy seems to work and rural touring shows regularly sell out, with an average of 85% ticket sales over the whole season. At least 35% of every season’s audience is also new to the rural touring network.
Claire is constantly looking at ways to attract new audiences. The network, which was set up in 1997, works closely with teenagers in rural areas. Its latest project, with Action Transport Theatre Company, is called 12 Miles from Nowhere, a play inspired by the lives, ideas, stories and dreams of young people who live in rural Cheshire. There is also a mini rural touring network aimed at the under fives.
Chester company Theatre in the Quarter, founded in 2005, is also used to packing out village halls with its professional and community shows and last year’s offering of Silent Night was a sell-out.
Coming to a venue near you this December is Home for Christmas, a show based on real people’s memories of Chester during the Second World War. The show, with four professional actors, children from primary schools and a choir, opens at The Forum Studio Theatre on December 1 and tours Cheshire, Ellesmere Port and Helsby.
Artistic director Matt Baker said: “There is something quite magical about engaging with people in their own local space; transforming a village hall, church or school. Some people who would not normally go to the theatre are quite comfortable going to a local venue and therefore we attract new audiences.”
He admits that, from a technical perspective, it is easier to put on plays in purpose-built venues but employs professional designers to create sets that work in a school hall, community centre and village hall.
Chester Performs, the company appointed to fill the cultural gap between the closure of the Gateway and the opening of the new arts centre, is presenting live theatre tonight (Thursday) and tomorrow at St Mary’s Centre. Volcano Theatre performs i-witness, a story of four people’s obsession with an extraordinary book. Programme manager Amber Knipe said: “This theatre works in a non-traditional theatre space.”
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a panto and thanks to Chester’s Tip Top Productions, the city will be treated to its first homegrown pantomime for 60 years.
Peter Swingler’s Aladdin is playing at The Forum Studio Theatre and runs from Tuesday, December 15, to Sunday, January 3, 2010.
When the new performing arts centre appears, Cheshire West and Chester Council need not worry about filling the seats. The queues for returns is already snaking around the imaginary building.